Papa Do Preach: Worldbuilding a religion

“Oh my god, I’ve been shot.”

“Holy shit.”

“Saints, that was close.”

Sounds familiar, right? There’s a ton of books out there that have instances like this: where a character gets wounded or sees/hears something bad and they do a swear.

And the first thing when I come across these instances I’m like. “Wait a second, hang on. Who are these saints? What god are they swearing upon???”

I find that things either go two ways: either we DO get explained about some form of religion in the world before the plot moves on—which cool! Yes! Awesome! Hope its integrated throughout the book!—but most of the time this gets hazed over and the plot continues and I’m just like “????? You were just swearing on gods!!! Tell me about them!!!” And it throws me out of the story completely. And thus I end up walking away from the book dissatisfied and frustrated because how can you skimp on something that’s fundamentally so rooted into culture and everyday life as religion??

Believer or not, religion plays a huge part in any world. Think of the social rituals we have: from weddings to burials, those things are often (not always though!) rooted from some sort of religion or ideology.

I’m not saying you need it 100%—there are loads of wonderful fantasies out there that don’t have a religion—but religion can add a wonderfully rich layer to your worldbuilding. Believer or not, some people will always believe in things whether its gods, saints, deities, demons etc. So if you DO decide to build and integrate a religion into your world, don’t feel like it has to play a huge part in the plot or affect your character. Your character doesn’t even have to have a faith, just acknowledge it’s out there.

And before I go on, for the sakes and purposes of this article—so y’all don’t think I’m putting my own biases on this—I’m agnostic.

Gods

What do these people believe in? Multiple gods? One god? Mythical beasts? Saints? What is the nature of these gods? Are they omnipresent or do they walk among us? Who are the leaders of this religion? Priests? Shamans? If your gods aren’t walking about, you’re going to need some representatives on land.

What you doing over there, preacher?

Rituals: places of worship, rituals, amulets, cleansing, sacrifice, prayer, scripture, oral preaching… There are COUNTLESS ways that followers can show their appreciation to said god(s). Are there texts or some deep-rooted universal world folklore they abide by and seek guidance?

Death

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but most religions are pretty morbid, and what happens in the afterlife is a big deal to believers. They’re believing and doing all these things in order to achieve some sort of good afterlife deal. So ask yourself: what keeps them faithful to this religion? But also consider: does this religion even have an afterlife, heaven/hell reward system?

Ok but how should we behave while we’re ALIVE?

A religion will most often always follow a moral code and law, so how do your followers behave? What’s their moral code? Do they have a blissful afterlife deal promised? If so, how are they going to act whilst they’re living? Do they go to a place of worship once a week? Is this a harsh moral code they follow or is it pretty chill? Are there penalties if you don’t observe XYZ ritual or skip a prayer or go against a commandment?

And consider those who go off-kilter. Which leads me to…

Cults!

My favourite part! Where there’s religion, there’s always going to be an anti-religion. Whether that be cults, hordes of heretics, extremists, priests gone bad (probably the name of a porno somewhere), non-believers—WHATEVER—there are going to be people who will take said religion/s in your world and warp it into their own twisted (or maybe more sensible?) version. Have fun with these guys!!! They’re always great to play around with.

Questions for you to ponder over when building your religion(s):

  • Where does this belief and religion come from? A story? A charismatic leader? A legend? A true story? A folktale?
  • What are the rules of this religion?
  • Aesthetics: do they wear robes? Rosaries/other alternative? What are their places of worship like?
  • Why do people follow and believe in this religion?
  • Does this religion (and thus its followers) have any enemies? If so, who?
  • And for your novel: are you going to have ONE universal religion for your entire world? Or will they be overlapping?

Jessica Bibi CooperJessica Bibi Cooper is a British Fashion Council accredited journalist, writing about fashion, beauty and luxury lifestyle. In-between reporting and attending fashion events, Jessica Bibi ventures off into the abyss and writes dark YA fantasy stuffed full of all the things she loves: faeries, villain fuckery, cruel desires, twisty plots, angry girls and morally ambiguous characters. When she’s not writing stories about characters making terrible decisions and kissing the wrong people, you can find her yelling about villains, spreading the word of the Darkling and making terrible bookish memes on Twitter @JessicaBCooper

 

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